By Philip Pearce
THE PRODUCERS, now playing at The Western Stage, is what you might call an outrageous hoot. It’s not subtle. It’s not politically correct. It’s just hilarious.
Unless you’ve hibernated since the sixties, you’ll know already that it’s about a down-on-his- luck Broadway producer named Max Bialystock and his downtrodden accountant Leo Bloom. Together, these shady characters scheme to exploit an accounting loophole that will earn them millions if they can find a script, a director and a cast so terrible that they guarantee a surefire flop. The flop backfires and bankrupts Bialystock and Bloom by becoming a long-running hit.
No great shakes as a plot, but Mel Brooks, who has to be our top purveyor of over-the-top satire, has joined with Thomas Meehan to trick out the silly premise with a succession of riotous situations, some sharply satirical musical numbers and two magnificent comedy characters.
The cast at Western Stage get a fast-paced action workout from director Jon Patrick Selover. Sets and costumes by Theodore Michael Dolas and Rhonda Kirkpatrick are full of garish color and show-biz glitz. There’s quick and slick music by Don Dally and an eleven-piece orchestra, and there’s fancy footwork supervised by Diane Jones Douglas. None of which would work as marvelously as it does without the services of two impressive lead actors.
Anyone with even a modicum of stage or film experience will tell you comedy is harder to play than drama. There’s the possibility of some self-indulgent wiggle room and emotional acting tricks when you do a heavy dramatic role. But mess around in a knockabout farce like The Producers and the whole thing stops being funny and just becomes tiresomely chaotic. Leo Cortez as the sleazy and rapacious Max and Tim Marquette as the terrified Leo may seem to explode spontaneously all over TWS main stage, but their comedy pyrotechnics have the careful planning and precision of a pair of well-oiled Swiss watches.
Watch Marquette’s changes of feeling and intent as the bashful Leo has his massive inhibitions broken down by the sexy office secretary Ulla (a delicious and bubble-headed Mindy Whitfield). Follow Cortez’s shifts of subject and emphasis in his headlong attacks on “The King of Old Broadway” and “Betrayed,” two sung soliloquies that establish his character and advance the story. He rattles these numbers off without so much as a slur or apparent pause for breath, yet you catch every word. These two singer/actors set a standard of committed performance that has to have inspired the rest of the fine cast.
William Wolak is a marvelously manic Franz Liebkind, the wild neo-Nazi author of “Springtime for Hitler,” the tasteless and appalling script Max and Leo choose for instant doom on the Great White Way. Always on the lookout for a nice cliche to puncture, Brooks and Meehan have opening night well-wishers offer Liebkind the traditional “Break a leg,” which he promptly does on his way into the Schubert Theater.
Nicholas Pasculli and Sam Trevino swoop way up over the top as campy stage director Roger DeBris and his swishy housemate Carmen Ghia. The happy pair have their own homegrown production team played with a lot of swing and sway by Ron Perez, Mark Alabanza, Anthony Turpin-Guzman and Anna Schumacher. They join their boss in his insistence that, when it comes to “Springtime for Hitler,” you’ve gotta “Keep It Gay.”
There are, of course, all those little old rich ladies who supply checkies in exchange for love play and naughty bedroom games in Max Bialystock’s office. Headed by the irrepressible Pat Horsley as “Hold Me, Touch Me,” they join forces for a show-stopping tap routine. The taps, of course, are provided not by the ladies’ shoes but by their metal retirement-home walkers.
It’s impossible to list all the resourceful and lively participants in this amazing show.
You’ll just have to head for The Western Stage at Hartnell College and check them out for yourself. The Producers plays until December 12.